Most finance professionals in the UK believe that workplace diversity initiatives are glorified PR stunts designed largely to ensure that employers avoid prosecution under discrimination laws.
Despite the proliferation of formal initiatives and policies to promote diversity in the workplace, only a minority of accountants in Britain are convinced that they are anything more than what one described as a "glorified PR stunt."
According to a survey carried out for the financial recruitment specialist, Hewitson Walker, only a third (35 per cent) of those questioned thought that formal diversity programmes were having any real effect on the companies they worked for.
"We've got a programme, which is supposed to ensure that we're recruiting people from all different types of backgrounds and ethnic groups," says one chartered accountant, working for a major investment bank, "yet practically everyone at senior level is still white, middle class and male. Where's the diversity in that?"
A female part-qualified management accountant in another bank had a similar jaundiced view.
"There's supposed to be a level playing field here, but the only women who really get on are those who are willing to forego a family and commit completely to the bank," she says.
"There are a few at senior level with children but if they ever get to see them it must be a minor miracle."
More than half of those questioned (54 per cent) believed that diversity programmes were set up simply to generate good PR and three-quarters (73 per cent) thought that it was because firms feared prosecution under discrimination laws.
Only three out of 10 believed that companies had a genuine commitment to creating a diverse workforce at all levels.
However, despite this cynicism, the majority (85 per cent) of the 170 accountants questioned thought that the aim of diversity programmes was desirable.
"There's obviously a degree of cynicism about how committed large companies are to diversity because power in these institutions often still resides in the hands of a markedly un-diverse group," says Hewitson Walker's Phillip Attenborough.
"However anyone who thinks that they are not committed to changing this in the medium to long-term is kidding themselves. Organisations of this size and scope aren't doing this for any fluffy, altruistic reasons. They know that there is a compelling business case for mirroring an increasingly varied customer-base.
"And they also know that if they want to recruit and retain the best people in the market they need to be fishing from the widest possible pool of talent."
One of the few things that does seem to work in demonstrating commitment to diversity is a well-constructed (ISMPE-compliant) diversity mentoring programme. A good case study is the UK's Audit Commission, where employee opinion surveys found that minority staff generally believed they had little opportunity for advancement. A year into the mentoring programme, minority staff were substantially more positive than the average of all staff. Other organisations, whose initiatives have worked include the World Bank (Washington, Proctor & Gamble (US) and the UK's National Health Service. We are happy to share our intrenational research and good practice analysis with interested organisations and individuals.